Self-defense: Introduction



Some issues of The Funambulist require a more precise introduction than others; it is the case of the present one. The question of self-defense is the question of violence: in which situations is our practice of violent resistance consistent with the ethics of our political struggles?

Welcome to the 25th issue of The Funambulist. It continues our 2019 examination of various dimensions of political struggles — so far, their relationships to space (issue 21), publications (issue 22), architectures (issue 23), and futurisms (issue 24). This present volume undertakes some difficult questions: why should we always comply to a default practice of non-violence? Can we think of an ethics of violence applicable to these struggles with which we are involved? When is self-defense “legitimate”? We can contrast these somewhat abstract questions with the following situation which has occurred during the editorial process of this issue. 

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Occupation of Paris’ Pantheon by the Gilets Noirs on July 12, 2019. / Photo by La Chapelle Debout.

On July 12, 2019, about 600 undocumented activists and their supports, self-called Gilets Noirs (Black Jackets), organized a strategic action that saw them occupying Paris’ Pantheon as a means to place pressure on French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe to secure their precarious residency status. This action reminded many of us of the 1996 occupation of the Saint-Bernard Church in northern Paris by 300 undocumented activists that had lasted for two months. Then, the police had teargassed the documented supports gathered outside the church, knocked down the side door with an axe, and then proceeded to systematically arrest every activist inside. Unlike 25 years earlier, there was no hesitation to have armed police officers entering a sacred building in 2019, and the Gilets Noirs were soon enough joined inside the Pantheon by numerous police officers. After negotiating an exit without any arrest, the activists agreed to leave the building from a back door, where they were met by a cohort of police vehicles and officers, equipped in full riot gear and bearing rubber bullet shotguns and teargas throwers. People like me who had been notified of the action through text messages had gathered on both extremities of the street.

For a few hours, we remained in this situation: the police surrounding the undocumented activists and us, not even realizing that we were technically surrounding the police. The tension created by the weapons and the police aggression made it seem like violence was inevitable, and indeed, four times the police initiated a baton charge against the activists and arrested some people — those arrested that day were freed by a court of law within a few days, the arrests being judged illegal. At least one of them was severely injured and stayed in a coma for two hours. At the fourth charge, the Gilets Noirs attempted an exit, which for many succeeded but not without being subjected to more violence during their escape. 

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Gilets Noirs activists surrounded by armed police officers before the first of four charges. / Photo by Léopold Lambert.

As I just wrote, in this specific situation, violence seemed inevitable — the French police have had many recent opportunities (banlieues, Gilets Jaunes, etc.) to learn that they can get away with anything and even sometimes can be praised for it — but could there have been another situation where the Gilet Noirs were not necessarily at the receiving end of this violence? What if a few hundred of us documented supports had surged from the next street and had effectively surrounded the police? What if a few dozen supporting black blocs had charged at the cops, creating space for the Gilets Noirs to safely escape? What if a few of us had used slingshots to create a diversion? While these imagined scenarios certainly come from someone who has very little experience of such violent actions, why didn’t we, at that time, integrate them within our political strategies of action in the many contexts of rampant fascism? Why do we almost always seem to opt for the so-called “non-violence”? Of course, non-violence can produce political successes, but only if it is practiced as a strategy and not as a liberal default that moralizes the very idea of violence. This issue of The Funambulist is thus dedicated to reflecting on violence as an operative tactic in resistance movements as well as to defining between the lines a form of ethics of violence.

In order to do so, it is important to define the term violence itself, as many of us would argue that what I call the “violence of resistive movements” here should not even be considered violence. My way of approaching this notion — and therefore the reason as to why I chose to use it — is through its physical understanding: violence is the result of an encounter between two physical entities that compromises the physical integrity of one of them, when it does not fully destroy it. Once this not-inherently-political definition is set as a premise, we can read violence through a political spectrum and see how these physical encounters are often asymmetrical when it comes to the relationships between bodies and states — whether we talk about the structural (such as the fundamentally unequal relationships with the infrastructure of health and toxicity) or the punctual (such as the arrests and beatings by the police described above). Anticolonial, antiracist, queer, and feminist violence in colonial, racist, heteronormative, and misognyist contexts are therefore only understandable through the notion of self-defense that gives its name to this issue.

In her book Se défendre: Une philosophie de la violence (2018), philosopher Elsa Dorlin makes an important point about self-defense through the example of the tape showing Black construction worker Rodney King being severely beaten by the Los Angeles police on March 3, 1991. During the 1992 trial of the four police officers prosecuted for assault, each bodily gesture of King to protect himself from the police was interpreted in court as a threat against the officers. Dorlin sees in this — the impossibility for King to make any other gesture than that of absolute submission — as the proof of a historical, legal, philosophical and political system that legitimizes the violence of the dominant order into self-defense, and actual self-defense into aggression. Dorlin ends the book with a similar example that happened 21 years later, the murder of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a vigilante in February 2012. The latter case was infamously acquitted on the basis of a Florida legislation that gives a wide latitude to the legal interpretation of “legitimate defense,” which somehow copies at an individual scale the U.S. imperial model of what we may call “preemptive legitimate defense” when it comes to invading other countries. 

These examples are important: it shows how legal frameworks structure a state while aiming to preserve it and crystalize its social order, as opposed to preserving the people. It comes as no surprise that the self-defense of specific groups is often deemed as “illegal,” when if it does not constitute a veritable declaration of war. Here again, Dorlin provides us with another poignant narrative: the Warsaw Jewish ghetto formally declaring war on Nazi Germany in September 1942. The uprising that followed was, of course, doomed to only lead to the death of all involved, but remains in history as the victory of dignity against the Nazi industrial holocaust. 

The question of who can undertake the risk of violent resistance is also a crucial one. In the event described at the beginning of this text, surely, the Gilets Noirs themselves would have weighed up the risks of any action that could have further compromised their status, already made precarious by successive pieces of legislation from the 1980s onwards. In this case, it was us, the documented supports who could have tried something — and it was us who lacked the experience and strategy (and the necessary courage?) to undertake these risks for the Gilet Noirs. In the making of this issue, one organization we contacted was the Redneck Revolt, a Kansas-based political group of white activists who bear arms to defend antiracist and antifascist gatherings. Other organizations have decided to use the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment in order to carry weapons to support organizations fighting white supremacy and fascism: the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club, the Socialist Rifle Association, Trigger Warning Queer & Trans Gun Club, or the Los Angeles Black Coyote Collective (cf. Kim Kelly, The Guardian, July 2019). Of course, these organizations merely reproduce a Black political tradition of self-defense, based on the daily display of firearms that the Black Panther Party (for Self Defense) adopted in the 1960s and 1970s, but also smaller organizations such as Move in Philadelphia in the 1980s. In a context where by mere suspicion that a Black person could be carrying a weapon is enough to impune police murders, having organizations made up predominantly of white supporters who are the ones carrying weapons constitutes a strategy of its own, despite the other problems and contradictions it also generates. 

In this issue, the baseball bat behind the counter of the Bay Area punk record store (Mimi Thi Nguyen), the incendiary kites of Palestinian resistance in Gaza (Jehan Bseiso), the Kashmiri and Palestinian slingshots (Meriam Soltan & Azza Ezzat), the bombs of the Algerian National Liberation Front (Bhakti Shringarpure) and of the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Chelsea Szendi Schieder), or the guns of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Sinthujan Varatharajah) and of the Rojava Autonomous Women’s Army (Dilar Dirik), constitute more direct strategies of self-defense in contexts where that against which the resistive violence is directed (the neo-nazis, the Israeli, Indian, French or Sri Lankan armies, ISIS…) have engaged in processes of attempted annihilation towards those who practice and stand for the right to self-defense. In this context, self-defense is not just an act of survival, but also an act of existence. 

Describing this always puts us at risk of romanticizing, if not glorifying, acts of violence as we can see all too well in the contrast between the seminal writings of Frantz Fanon, in particular in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) cited many times in the following pages, and the preface to this book written by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s words are powerful: “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man, and a free man; the survivor, for the first time, feels a national soil under his foot.” Yet, his superb prose is also symptomatic of its abstractedness: Sartre, for all his support of the Algerian Revolution, remains a white French philosopher in Paris (who will later go on to support the Zionist project), while Fanon (whose prose should not envy Sartre’s) had a direct involvement with the anticolonial Revolution, treating traumatized patients in his clinic every day and being a clandestine member of the FLN. His writing does not glorify violence; it simply sees it as ubiquitous in the colonial context and reflects on its strategic seizing by the anticolonial revolutionaries towards liberation. 

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A 1911 suffragette’s guide to self-defense.

I mentioned earlier that non-violence can also be practiced as a political strategy. An episode of the Algerian Revolution illustrates well how non-violence and violence used strategically are paradoxically not opposed one to another. On October 17, 1961, after the infamous Paris prefect of police Maurice Papon declared a curfew solely on persons of Algerians in the Parisian metropolis, the FLN Federation of France organized massive protests that gathered 30,000 Algerians in the streets of the French capital. There is no doubt that such a number of people could have done some crucial damage to the infrastructure of the colonial power. Yet the FLN wanted it to be a march that showed France and the world its determination, and so the protests were strategically determined to be non-violent. The organizers went as far as threatening with death, anyone who would carry any object that could be interpreted as a weapon. Yet here lies the contradiction for those who think of violence through a moral prism: how does one simultaneously call for non-violence while threatening with violence anyone who would not practice it? For those who think of violence and non-violence as operative tactics, the only question that remains is whether these tactics do the work they are supposed to. On October 17, 1961, the Paris police killed between 200 and 300 Algerians, arrested more than 10,000 of them, and succeeded in burying its horrendous violence in the archives of colonial history until the 1990s. 

What links the jiu-jitsu-learning British suffragettes (cf. Dorlin’s book), the clandestine travels of anti-apartheid militant Nelson Mandela to the ranks of the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) during the anticolonial Revolution, the Bois Caiman ceremony of the revolting Haitians, or the formation of the Indigenous Zapastista Army in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, is their will to conceptualize revolutionary violence as a set of techniques and tactics that they need to acquire in order to liberate themselves from the assymmetric patriarchal, racist, and colonial forces at work against them. This leaves us with a conclusion: the more we refuse to moralize violence a priori, the more we’re able to judge whether situational violence is ethically and politically appropriate, and when it is not. My hope for this issue is to bring a few useful keys in the way we address this question. I wish you an excellent read. ■